An all-star panel of high-ranking diplomats, including Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, debate the future of U.S.-Russian bilateral relations at an event in Washington, D.C.


Moscow and Washingtont seek to strengthen U.S.-Russian economic ties. Source: Kommersant

U.S.-Russian relations are known to be in need of new stimuli and new economic partnerships, but the latest "blessing in disguise" has come from a very unlikely source, said Russian and U.S. diplomats during a debate organized by the Center on Global Interests this week in Washington. In the words of the experienced negotiators, most U.S. media sources are painting the wrong picture, simply because positive news about Russia "does not sell."

The discussion "Russian-U.S. bilateral relations: the view from Moscow" included Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, former Deputy Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs and former Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer, and head of the Center on Global Interests and political analyst Nikolai Zlobin.

"I start my working day reading clippings from the American and Russian press. It makes for distressful reading. As one of my friends from the press told me, good news about Russia doesn't sell in this country. Most probably it's true. But I would also say that these relations are much better and much more substantial than usually portrayed. I would like to remind you that the Cold War is over. At least it is over for us," said Kislyak, opening the discussion.

At the same time, he noted that Moscow, believing the potential of bilateral relations to be much higher, was not satisfied with the status quo. The priorities highlighted by the ambassador include growth in trade, greater cooperation in the sphere of innovation and cultural exchanges, and stronger regional ties, particularly between Russia's Far East and Alaska.

“The West сoast of the United States and Russia’s Far East are in different weight classes,” Stanislav Tkachenko, an associate professor in the International Relations Department of St. Petersburg State University and a visiting professor at Italy’s Bologna University, told Russia Direct. “Yet the collaboration between these regions is technically possible. But the countries need enough political will.  America is a bit foreign for the integration in this regions because Russia is leaning more toward partnership with China, South Korea and Japan.”

Nevertheless, Tkachenko supports the idea of integration of Russia’s underdeveloped Far East with the highly developed American West сoast, a move that might support Russia from an innovation perspective

"Trade relations leave much to be desired," stated Pickering, former U.S. ambassador to Russia. He cited Boeing as an example of a successful economic partnership with Russia: The company has a design bureau in Russia and procures titanium for the construction of airliners from Russian partners.

Pifer, for his part, suggested that stronger economic cooperation could be a catalyst for political ties, since there is no longer any deep-rooted ideological conflict between the two countries.

"When you look at the traditional factors that cause disputes or conflicts between states — they are absent in U.S.-Russian relations. We don't have any ideological disputes. We are not in conflict over resources. Moscow occasionally mentions Alaska, but so far it's not the official Russian position. But there are still some scratches. And I think a large part of this is domestic politics both in Russia and in the United States. Trade and economic relations between the United States and Russia are good, not only for the economies of both sides, but for politics — it provides some ballast," said Pifer.

He went on to say that disputes with China (which accounts for around $500 billion of trade) always set U.S. politicians on edge, because too much money is at stake.

Speaking of initiatives to develop relations, Zlobin expressed the opinion that Russia did not play an active role in developing foreign policy initiatives. In his view, Russia's foreign policy toward the U.S. has always been reactive to the actions of Washington.

"Russian policy toward America was always a reaction to what Washington did... Can Russia bring anything to the table? Can it be more proactive in bilateral relations?" he queried.

The Russian ambassador did not concur. According to him, with respect to NATO's enlargement and America's proposed missile defense shield, Russia really was compelled to take retaliatory steps, since it did not instigate the deployment of weapons on foreign borders.

Speaking of strategic initiatives, Kislyak recalled Moscow's proposal to rid Syria of chemical weapons. "A fresh example is Syria. Who proposed this partnership?” asked the head of Russia's diplomatic mission.

He said that Russia's initiative was not a reaction to the threat of military force in Syria, but had, in fact, been prepared long before. Despite having been a major bugbear between Moscow and Washington for the past two years, it is Syria that could nudge bilateral relations into a new era of development across a variety of spheres.

"What can drive relations forward is the opportunities that we have from time to time to find win-win approaches, win-win strategies... We now have Syria in a very interesting position, potentially opening the door to new cooperation," said former Ambassador Pickering.

The diplomat also expressed his admiration for the alacrity with which Russia put forward the initiative to eliminate Syria's chemical arsenal — just hours after a speech by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in which he spoke of such an option, but (as admitted later by several Department of State staff) purely rhetorically.

Pickering believes that cooperation between Moscow and Washington to eliminate Syria's chemical arsenal opens the way to a possible ceasefire as well as a political settlement of the conflict.

Pifer, in turn, expressed the view that success on Syria and Iran could facilitate Russian-U.S. negotiations on disarmament.

"If we have progress on Syria and Iran, it will give Moscow and Washington an opportunity to reopen arms control talks," he said.

In his opinion, the U.S. and Russia have a special responsibility to lead the field in nuclear arms reduction. If successful, they could start a dialogue on how to engage other countries in the process, starting with Britain, France, and China.

In response to a question from the floor on whether the burden was too much for Russia to bear, and whether the country could still be considered a superpower, Kislyak referenced a recent report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service.

According to the document, Russia remains a nuclear superpower, significantly impacts the interests of U.S. national security in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, plays a vital role in arms control, non-proliferation, and counter-terrorism, and possesses more natural resources than any other country in the world, including America.

U.S. diplomats did not contend the findings.